Monday, 7 July 2014

The Translation of St Thomas Becket: 'As storys wryght and specyfy'

The murder of Thomas Becket, BL Stowe 12, f.27v

7 July is one of the two feasts of St Thomas Becket which were celebrated in medieval England, commemorating the date in 1220 when his relics were translated to a splendid tomb behind the high altar in Canterbury Cathedral. This seems as good a reason as any to look at another of the medieval English carols celebrating St Thomas, of which I've previously posted five (!):

'Holy Thomas of heoueriche' and 'Clangat tuba'

'Listeneth, lordings, both great and small, I shall you tell a wonder tale'
'Saint Thomas honour we, through whose blood Holy Church is made free'

'I pray you, sirs, all in fere, worship St Thomas, this holy martyr'

And here's a sixth:

Pastor cesus in gregys medio
Pacem emit cruorys precio.

As storys wryght and specyfy,
Sent Thomas, thorow Goddes sond,
Beyng a byschop of Canturbery,
Was martyrd for the ryght of Englond.

Hys moder be blyssyd that hym bar,
And also hys fader that hym begatt,
For war we wel kep fro sorow and care
Thorow the deth of the prelat.

Thys holy mane of God was accept,
For whatsoever that he ded prayd,
Vs frome the daunger conseruyd and kepte.
Of the ransom we xuld haue payd.

To and fyfty poyntes onresonabyll,
Consentyd of byschoppes many on,
Thou wast no[th]yng thereto agreabyll,
Therfor thou sufferyd thi passyon.

Of knytes cruell and also wykyd
Thou sufferyd thi deth with mylde mod;
Wherefor the Chyrch is gloryfyyd
In the schedy[n]g of this blod.

To Cryst therefor lat vs prey,
That for vs deyyd on the rood,
Conserue vs al both nyght and day,
Thorow the schedying of Thomas blood.

This text is from Richard Greene, The Early English Carols (Oxford, 1977), p. 61. The version printed by Wright has an additional English refrain:

Make we joy both more and lesse,
On the dey of Sent Thomas.

The song survives in two manuscripts, Bodleian Library MS. Eng. poet. e.1 (SC 29734) and British Library Additional MS. 25478. According to Greene, in the Bodleian manuscript this carol is 'defaced by a single stroke through each line' - the result of Henry VIII's 1538 decree that St Thomas should be "rased and put out of all the books", his shrine at Canterbury suppressed and all images of the martyr destroyed. Fortunately, this attempt to obliterate the memory of perhaps the most popular English saint of the Middle Ages did not succeed in robbing us of a huge number of images of St Thomas, or of these fascinating carols.

Here's a translation of the carol; the Latin text of its refrain - 'Pastor cesus in gregis medio, pacem emit cruoris precio' - is the antiphon used at First Vespers of the feast of the martyrdom of St Thomas (December 29), and means 'The shepherd, slain in the midst of his flock, purchases peace at the cost of blood'. For more on the liturgies of St Thomas, see Kay Brainerd Slocum, Liturgies in Honour of Thomas Becket (Toronto, 2004), where the antiphon 'Pastor cesus' can be found at p.169.

Pastor cesus in gregis medio
Pacem emit cruoris precio.

As histories write and plainly say,
Saint Thomas, through God's command,
Who was bishop of Canterbury,
Was martyred for the rights of England.

Blessed be his mother who him bore,
And also his father who him begat!
Protected we were from sorrow and care
Through the death of the prelate.

This holy man was heard by God,
Whatever it was for which he prayed:
From that harm he us preserved and kept
Of the ransom we would have paid.

Two and fifty points unreasonable,
Agreed by bishops many a one,
You would not in any way consent to them;
For that you suffered your passion.

At the hands of knights cruel and wicked,
You suffered your death in humble manner,
And for that the Church is glorified
In the shedding of your blood.

To Christ therefore let us pray,
Who for us died on the Rood,
Preserve us all both night and day,
Through the shedding of Thomas' blood.

The 'fifty-two points' were the list of legislative points to which St Thomas refused to assent because they gave the king too much power over the church. They are regularly mentioned in the carols about the saint, and Richard Greene notes that these 'points' became a subject of contention again at the time of the Reformation:

A curious survival of the tradition of fifty-two points as late as 1532 is found in the petition to Cromwell of William Umpton, one of the grooms of the King's Hall, who had been a prisoner in the Tower for fourteen months, 'loaded with irons'. According to poor Umpton, 'a pardoner of St. Thomas' hospital at Woodstock said that St. Thomas of Canterbury died for 52 points concerning the commonwealth; "which 52 your said orator denied, one excepted for the clergy, and that the said 52 points were a dance called Robin Hood [apparently equivalent to frivolous nonsense]." Then the pardoner asked him if he would compare Robin Hood with St. Thomas before my lord of Lincoln; on which he fortuned to ask the same pardoner why St. Thomas was a saint rather than Robin Hood? For this he was accused of heresy...' (James Gairdner, ed., Letters and Papers... of the Reign of Henry VIII, London, 1880, v. 551). Umpton was ahead of his time, and his petition was fruitless.
Greene, The Early English Carols, p. 370.

This is a depiction of the translation of Thomas Becket in a fourteenth-century Breviary, BL Stowe 12, f. 270 (spot the words 'Pastor cesus' in the right-hand column!). Note the empty space in the rubric beside the initial, where Thomas' name has been removed, so that it now reads 'De translatione sancti... martyr'. The site of Thomas' tomb in Canterbury Cathedral is also now an empty space, its position marked by a candle:

This is the spot behind the high altar which was so carefully selected for Thomas' tomb in 1220 - this part of the cathedral was rebuilt around it, confirming Thomas' place as Canterbury's new foremost saint. It was this spot which was the destination of many thousands of medieval travellers, from Chaucer's pilgrims to (perhaps my favourite of Canterbury's medieval visitors) the Icelander Hrafn Sveinbjarnarson, who presented the tusk of a narwahl at Thomas' shrine to thank the saint for a good catch. (Part of me really hopes they still have a narwahl tusk in a cupboard somewhere at Canterbury...)

Given how fiercely Thomas' cult was targeted at the Reformation, we're fortunate that so many tokens of his medieval popularity survive - from the carols to the various images of him I posted here (and many, many more). But the absences are in some ways still more eloquent. This, for instance, is what remains of a roof boss in the cloisters of Canterbury Cathedral, which depicted the murder of Becket:

A nearby reconstruction shows how it might have looked (based on this, I think):

St Thomas was not the only one to suffer from this particular purge; nearby roof-boss depictions of the murder of St Ælfheah by Vikings and St Dunstan's nose-nipping encounter with the devil were similarly destroyed, making it a clean sweep of Canterbury's best saints.

I find these absences, these scars, moving wherever I encounter them, and a day like today makes me wonder why. Partly it's because they show so vividly how we are cut off from the medieval world in which I (mentally) spend so much of my time. It can be difficult to explain my interest in medieval saints, and although I usually don't feel the need to defend it - if you didn't like it, you really wouldn't be reading my blog! - I sometimes reflect on the purpose and value of blogging about them for the public. Being interested in medieval saints is completely normal in academia, but it looks very odd outside that context - I sometimes get the impression that people think I'm a religious fanatic for blogging about saints and their feasts, and it's rather wearing to have to explain that you can take something seriously, and think it's important, without necessarily believing it to be true (however you want to interpret 'true').

Translation feasts like today's are particularly tricky to explain to a modern audience. It's easy to be cynical about their original motivation, since the practical benefits are usually so obvious as to make the whole idea seem like nothing more than a money-grab: building a bigger or more prominent tomb to attract and accommodate pilgrims, providing a saint with an extra feast to celebrate (often at a more convenient time of year for travel or liturgical commemoration - as clearly illustrated in the case of Becket, whose December feast, awkwardly close to Christmas, was supplemented by a summer translation one), claiming a saint as belonging to one church rather than a rival, and so on. Some medievalists get very sniffy about the pragmatism of it all, their high-minded idealism clearly offended by the idea of churches trying to make money off their saints. There's a lingering Puritanism in some circles (even within academia, but certainly outside it) which can't quite allow that medieval cults of saints were ever anything but a big con - that the saints of the Middle Ages were mostly a bunch of obscure people who were praised far beyond their merits, credited with patently invented miracles, and lauded in tiresome hagiography, with the aim of extracting money from gullible pilgrims. Some of this is not entirely without foundation, but I tend to feel it's an unhelpful way of discussing this historical situation; gleefully dissecting pious frauds of centuries ago is just not a very interesting way of approaching the past. It's marginally more helpful than some other favourite modern strategies for engaging with medieval saints - laughing at their funny names, for instance, my particular bugbear when it comes to the Anglo-Saxons - but not much. To commemorate these saints' feasts today, and to blog about them, without a religious motive, might seem foolish or naive; why should we mark such dates, if they're just artificial creations? Well, it's partly because an awareness of the liturgical calendar is a simple necessity for understanding many medieval texts; to blog through the year helps me in thinking about my work, and many people really seem to like it. But to me it's also an attempt to take the medieval past seriously on its own terms. At the risk of seeming completely humourless, I'm not a fan of the jokey, Horrible Histories-type approach to medieval saints (which was how I was taught about Thomas Becket in school, 'gullible pilgrims' and all); I can't bring myself to laugh at 'funny names' which are stigmatised because a violent conquest made them unfashionable, and I think it's important to remember that however silly a miracle-story may seem to us, it often has behind it a tale of real need or suffering in an age where saints might be a desperate person's only hope. What's more, in many cases (as with St Dunstan and the devil) the absurdities of the legends are meant to be laughed with, not at, if we could only allow ourselves to believe that medieval authors and audiences were capable of understanding fun and irony rather than being merely credulous fools. It's important to me in blogging (and even more so on Twitter, which is full of this stuff) not to be getting laughs out of anything which really mattered to real people, even if those people had unfamiliar names and died hundreds of years ago. It's that attempt to take the past seriously which makes me look like a religious fanatic, I fear!

But if we take translation feasts as an example, trying to understand rather than to condemn or mock, they can tell us fascinating things about the communities who organised them. They can help us trace, for instance, which parts of a community's history were most important to its identity at any point in time, or how a community defined itself against other nearby houses - the translation of Thomas Becket marked the moment when he became Canterbury's most famous saint (as he remains today), surpassing the Anglo-Saxon archbishop-saints, who were still venerated but no longer as culturally useful as they had been for the community in the period immediately following the Norman Conquest (on which see this post on Dunstan and this on Ælfheah). A translation tells us not all that much about the saint whose physical body is its focus, but a great deal about what a saint's memory meant to the people who venerated him or her. What is really commemorated today, then, is not just Thomas Becket but his importance to Canterbury and to the wider world: the fame which brought pilgrims to his shrine, the political charge which made him important enough for his name to be scratched out and his carols cancelled in the sixteenth century, and, yes, the income which built Canterbury Cathedral, a treasure-house of medieval art which still draws thousands of tourists and pilgrims every year. All this deserves to be remembered - and even blogged about.


Anonymous said...

My field of study is medieval medicine and surgery, and we suffer from the same sort of image problems in that, largely because everyone wants to believe that the history of medicine is one of clear PROGRESS from the muddled, nasty and ignorant through to the clean, modern and scientific, and because it is easier to laugh at the bizarre-sounding than to accept that the practitioners then were doing the same as those now, i.e. trying to heal in the best way they could with the knowledge of the times. And I sometimes wish that modern nurses could read my 14th century surgeon's insistence on changing dressings regularly with CLEAN linen......

Clerk of Oxford said...

Oh, I can well imagine!

david and mary grace said...

Have you seen Royal MS 1 C VII, ff v & vi? The manuscript is titled The Rochester Bible and includes part of the sheet music that begins "Pastor cesus in gregis medio pacem emit cruoris precio."

The contents' description of the manuscript shows that beginning of the folio has "added leaves from service books, 1st half of the 13th century."

The description for ff vi r-v: "trimmed folio with music, including, on f. vi recto, the antiphon 'Pastor cecus[sic] in gregis medio pacem', under the rubric, 'in natali sancti Thome martyris'. This folio is bound upside-down in the present manuscript."

I've uploaded an image of it here.

Clerk of Oxford said...

Thanks for that! Very interesting.

Stephen Wigmore said...

Your attempt to have empathy for people in the past who lived in very different surroundings to us does you credit as a person. But I guess I speak as one passionate historian to another. The past is a foreign country, they say, and I see it as a moral responsibility to try to understand our forbears as people just as much as to understand people from other cultures and countries today. Rather than treating them with sneering contempt.

Anonymous said...

I found your blog searching for the Feast of St Thomas, referred to by St Thomas More, happy to be martyred on the "even of St Thomas", ie, July 6.